I met Caroline in the hallway ; we were both very excited about this exhibition as Sargent is an artist we both love. It was quite crowded but not with snotty people: people managed to gracefully swerve around each other and make space for proper looking; it wasn't uncomfortably overpopulated like some London exhibitions.
From the start, you could see what a genius Sargent was. His friends weren't the snobs of the time; rather they were artists and musicians, and often not the most well-known. What really comes across in his paintings in the most touching way is how much he loves people (even when he very gently smiles at their foibles). In one gorgeous painting, Fete Familiale, Madame Besnard sits square at the front of the painting in her best red dress, her magnificent bust illuminated, her profile exquisitely painted; she has presented a birthday cake to her son while Papa watches approvingly but anonymously from the background. The painting is simultaneously sumptuous and everyday: we all know what a birthday cake looks like. That this snapshot happened so many years ago, and that so many of the people portrayed her (who could quite easily be our friends) lived through their joys and sorrows but died many years ago, gives an air of melancholy to the show.
In my favourite painting, Rehearsal of the Pas de Loup Orchestra at the Cirque d'Hiver (which is almost monochrome but for touches of sepia), an orchestra with double basses, trombones, trumpets and tympani puts all their energy into their playing: the light glinting from the brass instruments, and the tension as the string players put their bodies into their playing, is so realistic that you can almost hear the music.
I found myself trying to work out what they were playing by looking at the double bass players' fingers and the positions of the trombone slides.
And here is Robert Louis Stephenson, relaxed, comfortable and sharing a joke, leaning back in his wicker chair with a fag. Next to this painting is another, where he's pacing across the room while his wife joke-hides in a sparkly veil on a sofa. In so many of these paintings, Sargent has caught his sitters mid-mood. Very few of them have a static, bored feel, and this is where the life comes into his work. He paints personalities as much as people, sometimes perhaps unwittingly catching a little bit of self-regard, as he does in the painting of Mrs George Batten Singing. Her eyes are closed, her chin is raised to show her beautiful neck; we know that a beautiful voice comes from those lips, but we understand that perhaps she, too, knows this fact rather well.
Sargent had a fine old time up in the Alps with his pals, painting them painting and sometimes being a very competent impressionist. Everything bears his hallmark of confidence and affection and love of light, shade and unexpected detail.
There is never too much: inside, he knows just how sparkly silver is, and just how much glass glows and refracts light. Outside, he can paint distance and atmosphere, even though they are things you can't really paint because they are ideas and not objects.
There are lovely drawings here too: Ethel Smyth is shown to us as a strong and independent woman, the black chalk lines sparing and the draughtsmanship perfect.
I was almost moved to tears by seeing Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Ever since I saw this painting as a little girl I have loved lilies and felt what it must have been to be one of those little girls in the cool, long grass, getting lanterns ready for a party that I might not be allowed to go to. When you've fallen in love with a reproduction, seeing the real thing is the most amazing feeling: such a treat.
The painting is almost three-dimensional in its intensity of colour. Nothing is lazy. Detail is where it should be, and simplicity of rendition backgrounds everything that is not important but has to be there.
This exhibition is fabulous. I enjoyed it all the more for being with Caroline, who was enjoying it just as much. Afterwards we wandered into Chinatown and ate Dim Sum, which is something we won't be able to do soon, because Chinatown is going to be bulldozed by greedy developers just like all the other quirky and interesting parts of Londinium as it gradually turns into Dubai.